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HAPPY 101st BIRTHDAY: Japanese POW veteran celebrates in style


Len Gibson, a Japanese POW veteran who is volunteering with a cancer charity has enjoyed a spitfire flyby and Red Devils drop in at a huge party to mark his 101st birthday.

Len, who survived the horrors of the Burma Death Railway, said of the event held in his honour: "It's absolutely tremendous.

"When I was a prisoner of war on the Mergui Road there was a time when I thought it was so bad I was in hell.

"So I have experienced hell, and to be here today is heaven."

Former Bombardier Len Gibson endured forced labour and malnutrition while a POW but conquered untold hardship to become a musician who inspired Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics.

And now, following in the footsteps of fellow centenarian Captain Sir Tom Moore, the war veteran, of Sunderland, Tyne and Wear, is continuing to help others by signing up for volunteer work with cancer charity Daft as a Brush.

On May 19, the charity threw a huge party for the World War Two hero in Herrington Country Park, where he was treated to spitfires flying overhead and a Red Devils parachute jump.

He also received a personal message from his former neighbour, 80's pop star Stewart.

While incarcerated Mr Gibson, who turned 101 in January but couldn't celebrate due to coronavirus, would entertain fellow prisoners around a fire each night with a guitar.

And when he returned home from war he continued to play next to a fire he would light in his back garden. Neighbours would join in, including Stewart, who went on to co-found the Eurythmics.

In the personal message Stewart says: "I just wanted to thank you so much for inspiring me when I was a young kid.

"I was such an admirer of you and your family and it's inspired me and helped form the foundation of the fact that I wanted to be a musician."

At the event today, Mr Gibson also listened to a choir of 120 schoolchildren sing in his honour, was presented with two giant cakes, and enjoyed fish and chips from Humbleton's Fisheries, next to his and Stewart's old homes.

Mr Gibson added: "I think what has kept me going all these years is a British spirit and I love music.

"Music helped me during my prisoner of war times and has helped me ever since.

"I am probably the luckiest man in the world and I really think that.

"I am so lucky and I have such lovely family and friends and I am at peace with the world.

"I never thought that such a fantastic event would happen in my life."

The indomitable veteran is helping with a drive to roll out the Newcastle and Cumbria based Daft as a Brush, which provides free transport to and from hospitals, across the UK.

The charity aims to be operating in Aberdeen, Londonderry, Cardiff and London by 2022 and Len is appealing for volunteers and fundraisers in those areas to step forward.

Copies of a book he has written about his extraordinary life, A Wearside Lad, which Daft as a Brush has updated and reprinted will also be sold to raise funds to support the new centres.

In 1942 great-grandfather Mr Gibson was with the 125 Anti-Tank Regiment Royal Artillery when the ship taking them to the Far East conflict was bombed by Japanese planes, and though he survived, he lost his beloved banjo.

After making it to shore, he was captured and as a prisoner of war was forced to work on the infamous Mergui Road building the "Death Railway" in Burma until liberation in 1945.

While in the camp he built his own musical instrument and worked out how to make a guitar, and entertained fellow prisoners around a fire each night.

Despite two years of forced labour, physical cruelty, malnutrition and malaria, he was one of few who survived but was critically ill on his return to Sunderland. He spent many months in hospital, where he met a nurse, Ruby, who was to be his wife for 70 years before she passed away in 2014.

Mr Gibson, who was awarded the British Empire Medal at the age of 99, went on to become a teacher, working at primary schools in the Sunderland area for 34-years.

Daft as a Brush was founded by former businessman Brian Burnie and is powered by over 400 volunteers, who provide around 40,000 individual journeys each year so that patients do not have to worry about how they will get to their appointments.

Mr Burnie said: "Me and Len go back 20 years. I am 77 and without a shadow of a doubt he is the greatest gentleman I have ever met in my entire life.

"He is absolutely remarkable.

"Len is the star of the show. We haven't had to do anything.

"People have bent over backwards to come along and say 'well done Len'.

"Its hard to believe that 76 years ago when he left that Japanese prisoner of war camp he has been giving and helping people all over the North of England.

"He is a true giant of a gentleman."

All images from North News & Pictures. Article published on 19-05-21.

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